A Great Art Critic

By Benjamin Schwarz

January/February ATLANTIC 

Li-Vermont

Magicians and Charlatans
Jed Perl
EAKINS

Perl—a man of refined discernment, great humanity, and unbending honesty—may be the finest American critic at work today in any field. This beautifully made book brings together some of his finest essays from the past several years. It takes in his penetrating study of Bernini; his cynical, spot-on assessment of the recession’s impact on the art world; his praise of the particularity of Bill Jensen’s paintings; his famous evisceration of Gerhard Richter’s work (the first line of the carefully argued piece states his thesis plainly: “Gerhard Richter is a bullshit artist masquerading as a painter”); his precise appreciation of Jeremy Blake’s experimental films; his succinct but panoramic consideration of the life and work of Lincoln Kirstein; his jaundiced evaluation of fashionable new museums in New York and L.A.; his trenchant dissection of the paintings of John Currin (an artist who “will overwhelm you with glittery ideas even as each sentence that comes out of his mouth leaves you more convinced that he believes in nothing”)—in short, this is an aptly titled book.

Perl can write narrowly focused criticism that broadens to grapple with essential questions of culture and aesthetics (see his appraisal of the photography of Gustave Le Gray), or he can sparklingly and savagely analyze the relationships that bind cultural and intellectual fashion, the aspirations of social elites, and broad changes in urban life (see his biting piece on the corporate strategy of the Museum of Modern Art’s director, Glenn Lowry). Perl writes with classical exactitude—in this and other ways, he is a worthy successor to one of his heroes, Edmund Wilson. The trendy new philistines will dismiss Perl for his Wilsonian diatribes (“Anybody who … wants to make some critical distinctions between high culture and popular culture, is likely to be met by skeptical looks, as if there were something unacceptable about even the possibility of such a discussion”). The new philistines have clearly won the day, but, as Perl’s every word passionately attests, they are wrong.

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